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  • Writer's pictureJesse Good

Engage Your Customers to Discover Their Needs

This piece is the an entry in the "Happy to Help" Series, ongoing articles focused on elevating customer service experiences.

Last week, I wrote about some of the challenges that exist in Discovering the needs of customers. As promised, this week I'm focusing on the first of three challenges that were identified in Discovering customers' needs - engaging your customers.

A True Story

Lacy went to do her household shopping at a local outlet of a national retail store. She selected the items she needed to purchase, and then entered the checkout line. She put her purchases on the small conveyor and waited as her items moved closer to the clerk. She was surprised that he did not say hello or even look-up, but just started sliding her items across the scanner.




Lacy kept her eyes fixed on him waiting for some sort of greeting. After scanning all the items, he stopped and looked at her, but still said nothing. She stared at him, waiting to hear the total for her purchase . . .

and waited . . .

and waited.

When she finally realized he was not going to say anything, she asked, “How much is my total?” Still not saying a word, and with an annoyed look on his face, the man pointed to the small display that showed how much she owed for her purchase. She gave him the money and, again, without saying a word, he handed her the receipt with her change and began checking out the next person.

Did you notice that he did not say a single word during the whole transaction?

How is that for engaging a customer?

Do you think he was happy to help?

Was he a customer service skillionaire?

He did not even talk to her. He did not even make a sound, let alone smile. Sadly, this is a national chain which employs over one million people in the United States alone. You would think a chain this successful should at the very least be able to effectively offer some level of customer service.

Think again.

Acknowledge Their Existence

Engaging your customer requires that you acknowledge their existence. It can be difficult when work gets busy. Maybe you find yourself understaffed and having to deal with several people at one time. At least make the effort to smile at someone who is waiting and let them know that you will help them as soon as you can.

If you work in the office, the same can be true for email communication. While you might not be able to fulfill someone’s request right away, it only takes a few seconds to send a brief message letting them know you are working on their request. If you can’t help them because some other daunting task requires all of your attention, let them know that, too. Don’t just walk behind a kiosk, desk, or other barrier, fiddle on the computer, and then walk away. Acknowledge their presence with a warm, “Hello!” or, “Welcome to Jesse’s Place! I’ll be with you in just one moment.”

There is no excuse for not acknowledging your customer.

Apologies Stink

When you can get to the next customer, you can really improve the interaction by thanking them for waiting. Many people apologize for the wait, but I suggest that you don’t apologize for an inevitable wait that you had no way of avoiding. (Like that customer who spends an exorbitant amount of time in line looking for a coupon, OR when there was not enough meat on the grill to service everyone’s order.)

Instead, apologize when you have done something wrong or there has been a service gap and you are sincerely sorry about your error. If it is busy and your manager didn’t schedule enough people, or someone called in sick, this is not your fault. And, are you really sorry?

Probably not.

It is just a formality we’ve learned from people that suck at customer service performance. Save the apologies for when they are really needed and when you really mean them. (Like when the customer’s order was made wrong because you rang it up incorrectly.)

Just thank them for their patience. I contest that a friendly, “Thanks so much for waiting,” or, “I really appreciate your patience,” will go a lot farther than an insincere, habitual apology.

So what do people DO who are good at engaging customers?

In reality, engaging a customer takes minimal time and effort. In many cases, it may only take a few seconds, but it takes a lot more than, “How can I help you?” or, “Can I take your order, please?”

During my early years of college, I worked with one of my favorite managers, delivering pizzas. She was full of customer service mantras. She often reminded me of the phrase, “You only get one chance to make a great first impression.” Then she added her own spin to the quote and would shout, “SO DON’T RUIN IT!”

Whether or not a customer service transaction is successful, can be a direct result of the first several seconds of the interaction. Think about going to a restaurant. If you enter and are seated right away, you feel like things are going well. However, if you must wait for a host or hostess to seat you, followed by a long wait for your server to take your order, things are well on their way to an overall negative experience for you as a consumer. Even if the rest of the visit goes well, you are already cautious based on the start of the visit.

Get to Know Your Customer

Engaging the guest involves acknowledging them, then talking to them on a personal level. Talk to them for more than the purpose of getting as much money from them as possible. This is the best opportunity to learn their name. Learn it and use it! People like hearing their own name and there is a special feeling that comes from being known by name at the places you like to go. Just like on the television show Cheers,

“you want to go where everybody knows your name,

and they’re always glad you came.”

From Dale Carnegie, “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Remember their name. This is not a one-time thing. If you are doing your job and Delivering great service, you will be seeing them again. Also, remember that the goal of engaging your customer is to eventually Discover what their needs are.

The authors of Raving Fans suggest that employees should be engaging the customer in casual conversation that is not involved with the transaction—i.e., the weather, local events, or sports. During my university studies, I had the opportunity to work at a golf course. This job afforded me a lot of customer interaction. The rivalry team of the university that I attended was only about thirty miles away, so it was not uncommon to see people in attire supporting either of the two teams. It was a great conversation starter. Isn’t it a lot friendlier to say, “What did you think of the game?” rather than, “What can I sell you today?” or, “What do you want on that pizza?”

An Engagement Pro

While visiting a cousin in a nearby city, we decided to go out to dinner with our families. I observed one of the servers, Christian, as he interacted with customers. He would ask them about their day at the local amusement park. When he came to our table, we began chatting and I found out that Christian was familiar with the hand stamp and attraction bracelets from the nearby amusement park. It was very easy for him to break the ice as he would simply ask, “How was your day at the amusement park?”

Imagine the casual conversation that can be sparked from this one question. Think about the message that is conveyed to customers, “I don’t just want to take your money. I am happy that you are here today, and I would be genuinely interested in hearing about your day.”

When I had an opportunity to speak with the manager later, commending Christian’s behavior, he explained to me that customers frequently commented about Christian’s friendly and attentive nature. Christian is a great example of someone who knows how to engage guests.

How do you ensure that the first several seconds go well when you meet a customer? You engage them. Engaging the guest or customer is your opportunity to learn about them. Engaging the guest means that you ask questions, they talk, you listen. Ari Weinzwig, founder of the Zingerman's family of businesses explains that as you learn about your customer, you should be talking twenty percent of the time, and listening the other eighty percent.

Once you've taken a few seconds to engage your customer, the next step is to enquire about their needs. Yes, I spelled it with an 'e' and it was intentional. It can be spelled that way, and helps with the alliteration (wink). We'll discuss more about enquiring next week.

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Jesse B Good

Speaker, Author, Customer Experience Marketing Expert

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